Published Date

July 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 41: Our British Ally (1944)

It we were explaining our government to a Briton we might start off by handing him a copy of our Constitution. If he was doing the same for us, he could not start in that way, for the British have no such basic document. Their political system has been in the making for over a thousand years. During that time the methods of lawmaking, administration, justice, and tax collecting have taken shape and the relations between the government and the governed have been developed. Occasionally some dispute concerning those relations or some friction between different parts of the political machinery started a fierce political struggle. This might lead to civil war, to the execution or eviction of a monarch or minister; or it might end in nothing more serious than the writing down of rules to prevent the point at issue from causing a dispute in future. Hence there are bits of a written constitution, such as the Bill of Rights, habeas corpus, and a law defining the relations between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Yet these laws could be repealed by Parliament if it wished to do so. For the rest, the constitution is unwritten; there is no comprehensive document, and no supreme court to prevent other parts of the government from doing things on the ground that they are unconstitutional. But there are countless traditions and precedents and well-accepted understandings which bind—sometimes like a rubber band, sometimes like a ring of steel.

The political system of today is the result of five important historical developments. The first was the gradual emergence of Parliament as a tax-levying and lawmaking body, and the establishment of its supremacy over the king and his ministers. The second was the development of the cabinet, as a committee of members of Parliament headed by the prime minister, entrusted with the task of running the affairs of the country, but subject always to the approval of its actions by Parliament. The third was the gradual widening of the franchise to allow the whole adult population, first male and more recently female, to vote for candidates for the House of Commons. The fourth was the recognition by the unelected House of Lords of its subordination in legislative matters to the House of Commons. The fifth was the growth of organized parties, with distinctive and permanent policies and with central and local machinery for getting out the votes and for keeping the party alive between elections.

As a result of these developments; the House of Commons, normally elected at intervals of not more than five years, virtually rules the country. Since 1911 the Lords may not alter or reject any measure passed by the Commons for raising or spending money. They can reject twice, in two successive sessions, any other bill; but if the Commons passes it a third time, the measure then goes to the king, who automatically assents to it as he does to all other bills, for he has no veto power.

The House of Commons controls the administration. There are more than twenty departments, and each has a minister as its political head. Most of the ministers are members of the cabinet. The prime minister picks them and presides over cabinet meetings. But he and they are responsible to Parliament, especially to the Commons. All of them must be members of Parliament, most of them are in the Commons, and it is now the rule that the prime minister must be a member of that House. The Commons controls the ministers in three chief ways; by asking them questions for an hour each day when Parliament is in session, and by making trouble if the answers seem unsatisfactory; by refusing to grant all the money the cabinet asks for or to accept the tax proposals submitted to it by the chancellor of the exchequer if it does not like what the ministers have done or plan to do; and by drastically amending or even rejecting measures submitted for passage by the Commons. By any one of these three methods Parliament can voice its approval or disapproval of the ministry. Disapproval would force the cabinet either to resign in favor of another group of parliamentarians, or to ask the king to dissolve Parliament in order that a general election could decide between the ministry and its critics.

Parliamentary control of the executive is thus the accepted theory of British government. But who controls Parliament? Here the party system exerts its influence. The real line of division is not between parts or branches of government, but between parties, policies, programs, and personalities. The people choose the party they prefer; it has even been said that they choose the prime minister they prefer. The party which wins most seats dominates the Commons, and from its members the prime minister and most of the cabinet are chosen. The ministers and their departmental officials frame bills to carry out the party policy, and their supporters naturally vote for these measures, just as the minority party naturally opposes them. Some, perhaps most, of the supporters are yes men, who vote faithfully as required. Others may be more independent and critical; but they would not vote with the Opposition if such action meant the defeat of their own party, resignation of the cabinet, or the wear and tear, cost, and uncertainty of a premature general election. Hence the party in power must support its cabinet, critically perhaps, but loyally. There must be give-and-take between the majority and the cabinet, but in general the cabinet’s leadership and initiative must be accepted. In effect this results in cabinet control of the Commons, especially in time of crisis or emergency.

The cabinet is thus the core of the system. The prime minister is the center of the core. His responsibilities, burdens, and power have become enormous in the recent decades of war and postwar dislocation. He has to be his party’s mouthpiece at election time. He names and manages the cabinet. He has to be well informed on the main problems of the day and have a general idea about the minor ones. He has to keep the king informed of what is going on. Yet in addition he has to play the star role in the House of Commons—leading debates, meeting attacks, and planning strategy.

To discharge these many duties as driving force and directing head, he must be a good debater, and be well-grounded in parliamentary procedure and methods. Wealth, good social connections, and education at a famous school and ancient university were once indispensable, but today humble birth is no bar and high birth no sure passport to the office. Of the nine prime ministers since 1900, five belonged to the industrial or business upper-middle class, and two were born in poor men’s cottages. Only four had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Three entered the Commons in their mid-twenties, thus starting young on a political career. Nearly all held minor posts and then cabinet positions before becoming prime minister. Thus they served a long and varied apprenticeship in the House, in office and in Opposition, in the departments, and in the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street. For example, Mr. Churchill entered the House in 1900, when he was twenty-six years old. At one time or another he was in charge of colonial affairs, of home affairs, of foreign trade, the navy, munitions, the air force, and the exchequer. In the intervals he was an ordinary member and a far from tame one. At last, at the age of sixty-six, he became prime minister in the nation’s darkest hour.

Prime minister, cabinet, and Commons are the three most important parts of the British constitution, but three other parts call for brief description. The first is the king. George VI is the forty-fifth person to sit on the throne in the last thousand years. During the last three or four centuries the royal power has been so whittled that only one important constitutional function remains. When a prime minister dies or resigns, the king picks his successor. Yet even that choice is usually automatic because, if the old government has been defeated, the leader of the Opposition is the inevitable successor and, if there is a general election, the leader of the party that wins it is obviously the people’s choice, and the king must choose him. His other constitutional acts are all done on the advice of his ministers. He has “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn,” and if he has accumulated knowledge, experience, and understanding by spending many years on the job he may be a valuable counselor and elder statesman. The ministers need not take his advice, since they are responsible to Parliament, not to him; but at least they may have to admit that his views are not likely to be based on short-run party-political expediency.

As the king has lost his old power he has found other tasks to fulfill. The occasional displays of pageantry and ceremony link the past with the present, much as does our own ritual on Thanksgiving Day, Inauguration Day; or the Fourth of July. They satisfy that love of a parade, of gorgeous colors and ordered movement, that plays a part in religious worship, in graduation exercises, or in the conventions of some fraternal orders. Their central figure embodies the unity of the nation in a person, rather than in a flag. The king can be patron of philanthropic, intellectual, or social-service organizations, tour the Empire, lay foundation stones, go to the big races or football matches, visit bombed areas or battle fronts, and at every point serve as a tie to bind a nation together as no elected person could ever do.

That tie binds more than Great Britain. When the leading British colonies reached the status of self-governing dominions, the only constitutional link that bound them and Great Britain together was the fact that they were “united by a common allegiance to the crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” The same man was king of the United Kingdom, king of Canada, king of Australia, and so on. Further, he was the same sort of constitutional monarch in every capital, acting on the advice of his local ministers who in turn were responsible to their local legislatures. As a distinguished Canadian said recently, “We went to war as a free people of our own free will, fighting for freedom. King George the Sixth of England did not ask us to declare war for him. We asked King George the Sixth of Canada to declare war for us.” No British prime minister could serve as such a bond between the dominions. Australians and Canadians have often disliked intensely the policies and leader of the party in power in London. If there has to be a head acceptable to all and above party politics, there is none so serviceable as a monarch.

Most Britons would stoutly defend the monarchy so long as the king does his job well. Attempts to advocate republicanism have always failed because there did not seem to be anything to be gained by the change. But they would be hard pressed to make out a strong case for that other ancient institution, the House of Lords. This House is as old as the Commons, and the two have grown up side by side. They began as tax-granting bodies; the big landlords and high clergymen met in one group to consider how they could afford to give the king out of their own pockets; the representatives of the smaller landlords and of the townsmen met in another group to decide how much they were willing to promise the king out of the pockets of the folk back home. This separate deliberation continued when Parliament developed into a lawmaking body.

About 750 peers are entitled to sit in the House of Lords; but the attendance rarely reaches a hundred. Some of the peers are bishops or archbishops, but over 700 of them hold hereditary titles. Few of these are very old; only 50 go back more than 250 years. The rest are less than a century old, and nearly half of them have been conferred since 1906. Some men were given their titles—lord, duke, or whatever it might be—for services rendered the state as admirals, generals, administrators, or statesmen; but often the service had been rendered to the party or to the party campaign chest. After the last war this sale of titles became a glaring scandal, and since that time awards have more frequently been made as a recognition of outstanding success in business, industry, public service, intellectual achievement, generous philanthropy, and the arts. Consequently the peerage is no longer chiefly a collection of descendants of landed aristocrats; it is far more a body of men who have done well for themselves, for the state, or for mankind. Behind a lordly title there probably lurks a businessman, a banker, or a brewer; but there may be an eminent surgeon, musician, economist, or even a labor leader.

The tone of the House of Lords is likely to be aristocratic and plutocratic, and its politics Conservative. Early in the present century it rejected Liberal proposals for increasing the taxes on the rich in order to finance social reforms. This combination of party politics and self-defense led to the clipping of the Lords’ wings so far as vetoing legislation was concerned. Yet it would be wrong to think of the House of Lords as nothing more than a home of deep-dyed reactionaries. It has frequently displayed real statesmanship, independence and liberality of thought. Its members have no voters back home to please, can therefore say what they think, and some of them do think hard and well. At times they have been guardians of personal liberty when the Commons had been panicked into rash or vindictive measures. Consequently, while no one is satisfied with the House of Lords as it is today, the British cannot agree on what to do about it. Many would hesitate to entrust their welfare solely to cabinet and Commons. But no one knows what a perfect second chamber should be like, and the House of Lords therefore continues to meet, to carry on its business in a leisurely manner “not unlike that of a well-conducted funeral,” and as W. S. Gilbert once said, to do nothing in particular but to do it very well.

Finally, there is the civil service, that body of public employees of many ranks and classes which carries out the work of government. In the last forty years the British government, like our own, has greatly increased the number of things it does, either as a result of popular demand or under the pressure of events. Consequently the civil service has grown in size, importance, and power. Less than a hundred years ago the service was run on the spoils system, and was notorious for incompetence, ignorance, and red tape. Then the mess began to be cleaned up. A civil service commission set out to hunt for the best young brains available, to pick men by stiff competitive examinations out of the graduating classes at the universities, to set up fixed salary scales with regular raises, to offer security of tenure subject to good behavior, and generally to make the service attractive to well-qualified men. The result was that gradually the state secured a band of honest and able officials. No matter what party came into power they stayed on at their posts. Those in the higher ranks wielded great influence as aids to their political chieftains, especially since a new minister had to be taught his business by his permanent heads. It is sometimes said of them that they are unadventurous and unimaginative, because of their dislike of parliamentary criticism and their desire to play safe. But few have questioned their combination of extraordinary high intelligence, competence, and character; and these qualities are more precious than lighthearted enthusiasm for new stunts.

Next section: A Thousand Years of Political Development